The Essentials of Email Marketing

The popularity of social media has directed a lot of attention to its marketing potential, and it’s not difficult to understand why.

Social media is sexy and new(ish) and marketers love sexy and new.

While Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest may be getting all the marketing attention for a short time right now, the number one direct-marketing channel continues to be email -- not only  is email ahead in terms of results, but in consumer preference as well.

Data from major email marketing platforms and testing indicate that consumer preference for permission-based email marketing continues to rise. Some reports show the consumer preference reaching as high as seventy-seven percent. In fact, the data shows that email is perceived to be the most appropriate vehicle for direct communication with customers.

When done properly, email marketing can deliver impressive returns. Some studies indicate as much as $40 returned on every dollar spent on email marketing. But email marketing can be a difficult medium for many marketers to master.

There are many moving parts in an email marketing campaign. From subject lines and send times -- to design, there are hundreds of variables. However, not properly attended to, can torpedo any campaign. Unlike social media, once you hit send, there’s no way to get it back.

With all the challenges email marketing brings, it’s still hard to find a more attractive medium for target-marketing. Quality content paired with good analytics and a sound strategy often result in marketing nirvana, also known as engagement.

While there are many technical aspects to email marketing -- coding nuances, transactional marketing, and analytics -- the focus of this article is the essential ingredients required for effective email marketing: Content, Design, and Deliverability.


Consumers want quality content; without it, everything else is academic. Let’s look at all the factors that help to make content compelling, effective, and relatable.

Design with a goal in mind, so that you’ll know if it worked.

Newsletter design should be approached in the same manner as a website or landing page. Understand why you’re sending the email and what result you want to achieve.

Sit down with your client or boss and ask them plainly, “What is the one thing you want people to do when they get this email?” You might have to force them to pick only one to begin with! Designing to meet ten different goals is hard, but you can design to support just one or two. As we’ll discuss later, you can measure whether you’ve reached your goal in plenty of ways.

Address your reader.

Failing to address a subscriber by his or her first name is one of the biggest mistakes today's marketers make. This simple gesture can have a major effect on click-through rates. In fact, emails that include a recipient's name have, on average, a seven percent higher click-through rate than those that exclude it.

Respect your reader -- don’t waste their time or attention.

The email inbox is a noisy and busy place. Hundreds of other emails are already on the pile, with folders, calendars, and notes on all sides.

The typical user is probably not waiting with bated breath for your email to arrive so, when your email shows up, make sure it doesn’t waste their time. Get to the point quickly, instead of burying the value under a mountain of greetings, headers, and photos.

Figure out why someone would want your email, and then tell them what that is right away.

Write compelling subject lines.

A good subject line should contain no more than thirty to fifty characters (including spaces). It should also create a sense of urgency and it should give readers some indication of what to expect once they open the email.

Note: The maximum characters an Outlook client will handle before it breaks and inserts a tab-length break in your subject line is sixty-five.

Use incentives to increase open rates.

When you include an incentive in your subject line, you can increase open rates by as much as fifty percent. Subject lines such as, “Free shipping when you spend $25 or more,” and “Receive a free iPod with demo,” are examples of good, incentive-focused subject lines.

Grammar and spelling are still important.

It may be a world of SMS abbreviations, acronyms, and emojis, but test after test has shown that proper grammar in your email counts for improved conversion rates. Take the time to have the English major in your office (or a professional copy writer) review and edit your email. It only takes one user who notices a grammar or spelling mistake in your email to begin a social media campaign that makes you look less professional than you are.

The value of segmentation.

The one email metric that trumps everything else is engagement. Once someone opens an email from a sender, they're more likely to open another. These recipients also tend to be more forgiving when a marketer makes a blunder.

To ensure that everything possible is done to target these precious gems, marketers should segment their engaged subscribers and send them specific, personalized content to build up the relationship. One-size-emails do not fit all subscribers; segment your lists.

A few words about spam and compliance with the law.

While this may technically fall into the deliverability category, it’s important to understand the basics of complying with the CAN-SPAM law as it applies to incorporating the requirements into your content. Legitimate email service providers have little tolerance for marketers who send emails that fail to meet the legal requirements. And, compliance is so very simple.

First, make sure your list is your own list -- filled with people who have subscribed voluntarily through an opt-in process. Never, ever send emails to a list you have to purchase.

One caveat: Reputable list companies will allow you to pay to send marketing emails to their lists, but they typically review your content first and rarely give you access to their subscriber lists.

Second, always include a clear unsubscribe link in every email you send.

And last, always include the physical address and phone number of your organization in every email you send.

Follow these three, simple rules and you’ll likely avoid most of the spam-related problems. Most importantly, you’ll avoid getting blacklisted.


The absence of any widely-accepted email client set of standards creates one of the biggest challenges for ensuring your email gets viewed in the manner you intended -- by everyone on your list.

Beyond the technical considerations, developing bullet-proof email newsletters isn’t easy, even for experienced designers. Most often, the biggest mistake is trying to cram too much information into a single email. Or worse, over-design, where fluff gets priority over content, diluting the very message you are attempting to deliver.

Keep the design simple.

Emails are not like complex website designs; they should be nicely designed, but somewhat basic. Many of the most effective designs begin with a main header image followed by the main content.

The cleaner the design, the easier it will be to code, and will lessen the likelihood of abnormalities occurring between the plethora of browsers, email clients, and operating systems.

Keep the main message and call-to-action above the fold.

As many as seventy percent of recipients may not see your main call-to-action if it does not appear “above the fold,” which is to say the viewable area when your email is first opened.

Moreover, any call-to-action should be repeated three to four times throughout most emails, and at least twice in shorter emails.

Keep your email narrow and simple.

With the understanding that many recipients will be viewing your emails on a mobile device, the best practice is to limit the width of your design to six hundred pixels at the most, four to five hundred pixels is best.

Anything wider than six hundred pixels may result in asking users to scroll horizontally to read your entire message. And that’s a no-no. While there are methods to make an email responsive to any device, the best practice is to avoid multiple columns. For lengthy newsletters that may need a table of content, place it at the top below the introduction.

Determining the length of content.

How much content appearing in an email is also important. You want to put enough content in to get your message across, but at the same time you run risks of losing your audience if your content is too long. 

Stick to fewer than three typefaces.

The less clutter you have in your email, the more conversions you’ll experience. Don’t junk up your email with more than two, or at the most three typefaces.

Avoid background images.

Stick to block colors rather than images for the backgrounds for your text; only use funky gradients, images, etc. when no text is involved. This is especially important when sending to Outlook clients, who use Word to render emails. (Background images will not display when viewed in Outlook 2007-2016.)

Don’t assume images will be viewed.

You may encountered the message, “Images in this email are not displayed.” In many of the major email clients, your images will not be shown by default. Readers have to click a link or button to download and display them. For this reason, and to reduce the chance your email might be interpreted as spam, use text (not text in an image) as much as possible.


Not every email you send will be delivered. There are a host of troubles your email can encounter during the journey from your mail service to the recipient.

In fact, roughly ten percent of all mass mailings never make it to the inbox due to bounces (wrong addresses), anti-spam filters (that reject the message without even store it in the junk folder), and other technical issues

Simply put, deliverability depends on a series of factors that can be both internal to the message itself (general aspect, images, subject line, text percentage, etc.), or external and relative to your database or your delivery mechanism (a clean list and a reliable email server).

So improving deliverability -- any technique that tends to maximize the total rate of correctly delivered emails -- is a widely discussed topic.

Let’s look at a number of methods that you can use to help improve the odds your emails traverse the internet unabated.

Don’t send email campaigns from your own server.

Professional marketers use a dedicated email service provider (ESP) like Campaign Monitor, MailChimp, or Emma.  Period.

Sending email campaigns from privately-operated mail servers is likely to cause deliverability rates to suffer because most don’t have the required credentials recognized by Internet Service Providers and other email providers such as Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook.

For enterprise organizations, it may make financial sense to keep everything in-house. In that scenario, it’s recommended to use a professional SMTP service, like SendGrid or MailJet, which will send your messages using only Internet Protocols (IPs) with a high reputation (that is, only reliable protocols). Don't share IPs with spammy users or any type of service which could risk your campaign and have you end up on a blacklist.

Words to avoid in your email content.

There are about two hundred words that can possibly get you into spam trouble. The following short list constitutes what are often referred to as "email disaster words." You certainly can use these words in your email, and you've most likely seen emails from companies that use these words.

However, the more that words from this list appear in your emails, the more likely you are going to experience deliverability problems. Most email providers use complex matrixes and algorithms to determine what emails get routed to junk folders (or rejected completely).

Recognize that the word list is different for each email service provider. Use this list to reduce your spam chances.

  • Free
  • Visit our website
  • Opportunity
  • 50% Off
  • Bonus
  • Discount
  • Save up to
  • Winner
  • Prizes
  • Information you requested
  • Important information regarding
  • Guarantee, Guaranteed
  • Special Promotion
  • Great Offer/Deal
  • All New
  • One Time

Test everything before sending, because you can’t get it back.

While reviewing current email client standards is a great start, nothing beats live testing a newsletter in as many email clients as possible. Several services are available, like Litmus, which help with design and spam testing.

Today, many ESPs have some form of testing service built in. It’s important to make sure every link is working and that any personalization appears as expected. It seems I always tend to spot problems two seconds after hitting “send.” So, send some test emails first to people who can give you feedback, and save yourself the despair of sender’s regret.

Remove Inactive subscribers from your lists.

Send an email to people who have neither opened nor clicked in the last year asking them to confirm they still want the email. Then you are less likely to be reported as SPAM and this is a potential way to remove emails in spam traps.

Regular clearing of inactive addresses, which have not interacted within a twelve-month period will help to prevent deliverability issues caused by emotionally unsubscribed recipients.

Prompt users to add your email address to their address book.

You should encourage recipients to add your address to their “safe senders” list or address book, so that even if a message has characteristics of spam, it will not be placed in junk box.

Provide visual reassurance that you are a trusted brand.

Approaches include:

  • Ensuring the email branding is clear so that your company is identified.
  • Ensuring the email branding is the same as the branding the user would have seen at time of sign up.
  • Put your company name, address, registration number, contact details in the email footer. This is also a legal requirement in many countries.

Review deliverability analytics for all campaigns.

While most marketers will mainly be interested in opens, clicks, and transactions when reviewing their campaign reports, you should always look at delivery also. Compare each campaign to your deliverability past history to gauge whether or not you have a problem -- then act on it.

Wrapping it All Up

Email marketing is a powerful channel for driving real business results and achieving a measurable return on investment. Here’s a few key takeaways:

  • Content is still king. Without quality, compelling content, everything else is purely academic.
  • Like most effective marketing -- simple is better.
  • From your content to your design, strive for easy-to-read, scannable content with clear calls to action buttons.
  • Have a purpose. Design all email marketing campaigns with an end-goal in mind. Use your lists strategically with segmentation.
  • Test, test, and then when you are done testing, test some more. Once you hit send, you can’t take it back.
  • Follow the rules and use reliable email services to ensure all your efforts are not for naught.